The Con Artistry of Movie Trailers

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False advertising thy name is movie trailers. You know what I'm talking about. The trailer for Cloverfield promised thrills the movie failed to deliver. I can say the same for Jumper, Vantage Point, Semi-Pro and dozens of others. Bad trailers are rare, though Fool's Gold qualifies, as does Meet the Sparatans. Hollywood has made an art out of the come-on. Our best protection is learning how to read a movie trailer for tell-tale hints that we're being sold a bill of shoddy goods. Let's take three examples — trailers for movies due to open in a few weeks and that studios aren't eager to show to critics like myself until the last minute or beyond. I choose these trailers because, like you, I don't have any idea of how good or bad the movies themselves are. I'm choosing at random. If you have better examples of how the scam works, send them along. Here are my exhibits A, B and C.

DRILLBIT TAYLOR Opening March 21st

A comedy trailer that capitalizes on our affection for star Owen Wilson, who's had a tough time following his reported suicide attempt last year. The trailer wastes no time time telling us what the movie is about. Wilson's title character is a bodyguard. We hear him tell prospective clients: "I've protected three Vice-Presidents, Bobby Brown, and Sylvester Stallone" (pause), "not quite as tough as he looks." The line isn't funny, but Wilson puts a fun spin on it. Then — boom — comes the BIG JOKE, the ONE BIG JOKE. Wilson's Drillbit Taylor is talking to — are you ready? — kids. They want to hire him to protect them from the school bully. We see Drillbit humilated at the hands of children. Then we see him humiliated again. In fact, we see the whole movie or all we need to know of it. Giving away the store is a major flaw in trailers today. In a comedy trailer, we know they're telling us the best jokes. Training his clients — a fat one and a skinny one in the Jonah Hill-Michael Cera tradition — Drillbit teaches them Judo "as in ju don't know who you're messin' with, Homes." If that's the best joke, Homes, this movie is in deep doodoo.

SHUTTER Opening March 21st

Asian horror Americanized is a sure sign of trouble. The trailer tells us right off that Shutter is from the executive producers (can anyone define what they do?) of The Grudge and The Ring. It makes no mention that they're home-schooled remakes of films that the Japanese did way better. The trailer has one of those deep Mr. Moviefone voices to take us through the plot, involving Spirit Photography with images of the dead appearing in photographs. It's a solid gimmick, except nothing that shows up in the trailer is remotely scary. You should know that the 2004 film of the same story from Thailand is bowel-emptying scary. The biggest giveaway in the trailer that the movie has problems is the appearance of its star, Joshua Jackson. The trailer cuts away from him fast, but not fast enough to make us forget that Jackson brings a safe, PG-ish Dawson's Creek meets The Mighty Ducks affect to the whole enterprise. Are your hopes sinking? Mine are.

SUPERHERO MOVIE Opening March 28th

This trailer had me at hello or at least at the first sight of Leslie Nielsen. Visions of the eightysomething actor as Frank Drebin in The Naked Gun, Dr. Rumack in Airplane! and most recently President Harris in the Scary Movie series whet my appetite for fun. I gave this goof on superhero movies like Fantastic Four and Batman Begins the benefit of the doubt just watching Nielsen wield a nail gun. Then the trailer makes it clear that Drake Bell will be doing the the heavy comic lifting as a high school kid who develops powers and abilities far beyond those of mortal men as The Dragonfly. A careful viewing of the trailer reveals something even more dire: the focus is on spoofing Spider-Man to the exclusion of all else. Then everything starts to feel older than Paris Hilton's first stupid utterance. Geez, Spider-Man has been spoofing itself since 2002. Even quick cutting and a hyper pacing can't disguise the fact that this trailer is its own worst enemy. But in showing the good sense to show us Nielsen, it's a trailer that will sell tickets.